Can You Be Sued For Bad Bedside Manners?

This case is gaining a lot of attention and, surprisingly, many of the people who hear only part of the story are sympathetic to the doctor. Those people suggest that since the mother and child are well there is no real case, so they should be quiet and let it go. Some are saying that their pursuit of this case will simply raise malpractice rates. If the accounting of events in the allegations are accurate, though, malpractice did occur, and the doctor’s abuse was both physical and verbal/emotional. But can a doctor be sued for poor bedside manner?

The case centers around verbal and physical abuse of Catherine Skol, a former Chicago police officer and mother of five. The situation began when she went into labor at about 4 am on March 1, 2008, while her regular OB was out of town, and Scott Pierce, MD, filled in for her primary OB, Dr. Weitzner. As one reads the details of the allegations, it becomes clear that, if the accounting is accurate, Dr. Pierce should be Mister Pierce from now on. Through a series of blatantly sadistic, belittling and demeaning remarks, through insensitive conversations on the cell phone while the mother was delivering, and by not even bothering to come by to check on mother or child after delivery, behavior of this nature would earn anyone a special place in the books. But that’s not where the allegations end. According to Mr. and Mrs. Skol, Pierce refused the mother’s requests for anesthesia, demanded that she push at inappropriate times (itself a risk to both mother and baby, inserted a catheter during a contraction, demanded use of a 25 gauge needle to suture a tear in the vulva (without anesthesia) … there’s a lot more in the alleged accounting. Through the entirety of the allegations, we see a combination of both verbal and physical abuses. In the final analysis, the mother and child are both healthy, though. Can a healthcare provider be held accountable for being rude?

This case blows the concept to absurd proportions, and in the magnification it becomes clear that bedside manner is part of healthcare, and that in such extremes as described by the allegations, the physician should be culpable. What of less vulgar and dramatic circumstances, though? Is being short-tempered with a patient a form of malpractice? What about being insensitive to pain or suffering, or being cavalier in discussing another patient? (Best not to discuss other cases in the patient’s presence in any circumstance.)

Anyone can sue anyone for anything. It will be for the courts to decide (if it is allowed to get that far) whether Pierce is liable for civil damages as compensation for his behaviors. Professional credentials are at risk with this case, as well, and that, too, is for others to decide after all of the facts are found out. If this case serves no other purpose, it should remind us that healthcare providers must be on their best and most professional behaviors at all times.

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